Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Why The Irish Are Our Overlords

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Patrick Daley Thompson has an etymological problem. He’s a grandson of Richard J. Daley, which makes him a member of the most successful Irish political family in America. But he’s descended from one of Daley’s daughter, who married a man with an English surname. So Thompson’s campaign logo is a shamrock in a green circle, with the reminder “Punch 74.”

There’s no doubt that being Irish is a political asset. Nowhere is it an asset more than Illinois, where non-Irish judicial candidates have adopted Gaelic names in order to sway voters who have nothing else to guide their decisions. But why, exactly, are the Irish so lucky in politics?

For one thing, they had a one-generation head start on all the other immigrant groups, because they arrived here speaking English. They also had fewer enemies among the other ethnic groups. As the saying went, “A Lithuanian won’t vote for a Pole, and a Pole won’t vote for a Lithuanian. A German won’t vote for either of them. But all three will vote for a ‘turkey’ -- an Irishman.” Only the English hated the Irish -- and the English all lived in the suburbs.

In 1990, The New York Times noted that

... an Irish name, and sometimes two, will appear on the ballot next to each of the following offices: Illinois governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state, Cook County board president, sheriff, assessor and state’s attorney…Over the years, more than one candidate for judge here has legally changed names to sound Irish. And for good reason: Voters in the Democratic primary here in 1984, for example, ousted four party-endorsed incumbent judges in favor of relatively obscure lawyers named Tully, Shelly, Kelly and Flanagan.

Indeed, there was once a judicial candidate who came into the name “McGrath” through marriage, then added “Fitzgerald” as her middle name. Irish as that sounded, she still lost. Rich Miller, publisher of Capitol Fax, once joked to Barack Obama that he’d be more successful if he changed his name to Barry O’Bama. In the early 20th Century, a Jewish immigrant named Fritz Kohn decided to assimiliate by changing his name. He dropped a pencil on a map. It landed on County Kerry. Had it landed on France, his grandson, John Kerry, might never have been elected to the Senate from Massachusetts.

Ald. Edward Burke, Irishman and student of history, of course had a theory on his race’s political success.

“People know that the Irish are inherently skilled at politics and government,” he told the Times. “So when voters see an Irish name on the ballot, they’re comfortable with that. Furthermore, they know the Irish can get along with other groups. They’ve got to. They certainly can’t get along with each other.”

In the 21st Century, Illinois is not quite as Irish dominated, but we still have plenty of Irish politicians: Gov. Pat Quinn, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate President John Cullerton. And let’s not forget Attorney General Lisa Madigan. She was born with the Scottish name Murray, but acquired the Madigan when the House Speaker married her mother. Just more proof of the power of an Irish name.

Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!

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